Michael: It's so good to be back. My first outing with you guys was so much fun, and I'm really delighted to be back to dive a little bit deeper.
David: Awesome. Well, why don't you start off, Mike, by telling us a little bit about yourself, your background, and how you arrived at ICF and became founding executive director of the Climate Center?
Michael: I think it all goes back to just being a Boy Scout. I grew up in the woods of Eastern Kentucky, and Boy Scouts was a great way to make that part of the country—which was otherwise not that stimulating—really exciting. Every weekend, we'd be back in the creeks and hollers, camping, repelling, rock climbing, canoeing—you name it. But the rule always in our Boy Scout troop was that you had to leave every campsite cleaner than it was when you got there. That has been my mantra throughout my career. I've spent decades in the energy and climate space, and every organization I've worked with is all about my mission to leave the campsite—in this case, planet Earth—cleaner than it was when I got here.
ICF is particularly exciting because we help governments. We help corporations. We help nonprofit organizations. We help some of the most influential clients in the world that have some of the longest levers that are available to be pulled to make this campground cleaner than it was when we got here. So I'm really excited about being part of what I think is the greatest force multiplier for good. And in particular, I'm just tickled that ICF stands for the Inner City Fund. It started out as a bunch of Tuskegee Airmen wanting to do some good after World War II, wanting to help these small inner-city businesses get off the ground. This was “social impact” before we had that term. And they realized that it wasn't capital; it was guidance and advisory services that really were helping these small businesses. And ICF today is [over] 8,000 people. Half of our work is social impact, whether it's health, education, etc. The other half is about the environment, climate, energy, etc. We do a lot of good in a lot of places for a lot of people, so it's a great place to be.
David: That's one of the reasons why I've been here for over 30 years now. It's that mission to help improve the world for our clients, for our staff, and for everybody, really.
Michael: Well, what I think is cool is that we have all of the rigor of a for-profit and all of the mission of a nonprofit. It's the best of both worlds, isn't it?
David: It is.
Joan: That it is. But the Climate Center—I'm not familiar with a lot of climate centers—is this something that's unique? Could you give a little bit of context?
Addressing climate change with the power of storytelling
Michael: Most of the climate center-like entities that you'll see out there are probably academic institutions. So these will be universities that have joined together, folks from different disciplines, different departments. Some of them might be atmospheric scientists, some might be economists, some might be engineers. And they bring them together and call it a climate center. And those are great because academia is at the forefront of cutting-edge thinking so much of the time. Other places where you see climate center activity is going to be in a think tank world, the non-profit world. And those are fantastic mission-driven organizations, too.
What I think makes the ICF Climate Center unique is that ICF, of course, is a for-profit consultancy, and we do what we do very well. But at the same time, almost all of our work takes the ultimate form of a deliverable for a client. And a lot of the time, those clients—whether it's a government agency or a private company or a non-profit organization—receive the deliverable and they do whatever they want to do with it because that's their product we've delivered to them. We don't always get to toot our own horn; it's not really in our DNA. ICF is a group of humble folks who are really focused on doing the work, not so much on touting the work. So I would say the ICF Climate Center is unique because we get to tap some 2,000-plus experts, folks who have been at the forefront of their fields. And we've been doing climate work since there was climate work to do. Since the 1980s, we've been doing sea-level change analysis. We've been doing the annual greenhouse gas inventory for the United States for decades. We did the math behind our engagement in the Montreal Protocol on the ozone layer. And we recently updated it to the Kigali Amendment on its impact on climate.
There are so many things that we do that not enough people know about. We've been behind the scenes for a very long time. And so, we get to tap all that expertise, all that experience. And the Climate Center, in many ways, is our gift to the community. We are public-facing, not client-facing. Our knowledge is to be shared as a thought leadership platform and isn't necessarily locked into proprietary private contracts where, you know, they don't get to see the light of today. This is us talking to the community and sharing with the public because we have learned so much, and it wouldn't be right to keep it to ourselves.
David: And there's a lot of really good information on our public-facing Climate Center site, whether it's papers, articles, or webinars. It covers such a wide range of topics that really, what you're talking about there, Mike, it unveils the broad reaches of the work we've been doing, and shares some of those results. So that's pretty cool.
Michael: Well, we're just getting started, David. Climate is so broad, so interdisciplinary, and we have so many smart people at ICF who we can tap into to develop these insights. And we also have a ton of great clients that we're increasingly getting into relationships with where we can help tell their stories and shine a spotlight on them (because sometimes they're stage shy, too). I think of it in terms of storytelling. We're really good at math, we're really good at analysis. We're really good at numbers. We're great at science. We're building up our capabilities when it comes to storytelling, the way we frame these kinds of accomplishments and the kinds of efforts we do. Because like you probably know, what's the math assignment? You can get the answer right, but if you don't show me the work, if you don't tell me the story, you don't get full credit.
Joan: What's something that you're currently working on that you're excited about?
Michael: I'll share a couple of things. We recently wrapped up what I thought was a really great webinar where we brought together agency representatives and leaders from the federal government: USAID (the United States Agency for International Development), the Development Finance Corporation, and the Millennium Challenge Corporation. As some of your listeners may know, the United States, at the last conference of the parties in Egypt, really pushed hard and said, "We're going to do a lot on climate from the governmental end, but if we're going to get all the way, we're going to really need to tap private finance. We need to mobilize private finance and we need to use government finance to catalyze that." And so, we had a great webinar where we heard from and talked with these agency leaders, who are the tip of the spear on the governmental side of how we are going to invest U.S. capital into international development in a way that catalyzes and mobilizes private finance towards climate-compatible investments and infrastructure.
It's really powerful to know that several of these agencies are our clients, and several of these agencies are doing really great work to be able to shine a light on it. They may engage us separately as clients, but they don't necessarily talk with each other about what they're working on with us. We are the only ones who know that this agency's working on this, that agency's working on that. We can connect those dots, and that's a service that we're delighted to provide.
Joan: That webinar was great.
Michael: I've already listened to it twice, and I still catch stuff I didn't hear the first two times. There's a lot there.
David: We had Jigar Shah on an earlier podcast. He's the Director of the Loans Program Office at DOE [Department of Energy], so it sounds like he would've had a lot to say as well.
Michael: Jigar and I go back a long way. He's always got a lot to say, because I tell people, "He's forgotten more about energy and climate than most of us will ever learn." Which is uniquely Jigar. And then coming up, we are working on what we call a flagship report. Every year, we want to do a flagship report where we really get to show off the capabilities that we have developed over time and over different projects and put our capabilities through their full paces. We are the contractor to the Office of Science and Technology Policy for the US Global Climate Change Research Program, so we are the ones who help them to do the national climate assessments. Every five years, the United States government does its assessment. It's like the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report, but just for the US. So we get to help them with that report, and we've developed capabilities in that process.
Now, we're going to do a flagship report that really takes a look at what climate change means for the United States and for our infrastructure in particular, and zoom in and out on different geography, different sectors, different kinds of infrastructures and different kind of impacts, and unpack what this looks like for this part of the country when it comes to equity. What does this look like for this part of the country when it comes to water? How does this affect health, and what does that look like? Because 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2050, it feels far away. It’s hard to make that anything but abstract. We really have to zoom in and see ourselves and what climate change really means. So, we’re trying to do that storytelling.
David: That's really cool.
David: How much—I mean, it's an unfair question—but how much effort goes into a report like that? It sounds like a massive undertaking.
Michael: It very well could be. The good news is that, because we have done so much of this kind of heavy lifting for clients on other projects, we're not starting at square one. We already have a lot of the tools and the capabilities. It's a matter of dialing it in and shining the light in a particular direction. But it is a significant investment in terms of time, effort, and energy. And that's why the Climate Center is a substantial effort from ICF. This is not something that we do without thinking. This is a very deliberate effort, and I think it's very much an extension of our mission.
I grew up in Kentucky. I rafted the waters of West Virginia every summer as a Boy Scout, and there's this thing we call the law of the river. Basically, if you're in your raft and anyone falls out of your raft, of course you're going to drag them back in and make sure they're okay. But the law of the river dictates that even if everyone in your raft is okay, and you see someone else swimming who wasn't in your boat, you take care of them, too. If you see another raft headed for trouble, you warn them there's a rock this way or a branch that they can't see that way. You take care of each other because that's the law of the river. And I think that's the underlying spirit behind the Climate Center. We can't just take care of our own clients and be happy with just that. There's more at stake. Climate is going to affect all of us. Even if our clients do the right thing, if not everyone else does the right thing, then we're still all in trouble.
David: I love that analogy.
Joan: I definitely think I would like to go whitewater rafting with you.
Michael: Oh, anytime. I'm always game for a run down the river.
Joan: Just knowing that if I fell out, you would definitely help! But I love the analogy. I really do. I think it's where we all need to be.
Michael: It’s like what you're doing, Joan and David. You're doing this podcast, you’re sharing your time, you're sharing your knowledge, you're sharing your networks, and doing it in a way that helps everyone who listens. And I think we're on the same wavelength.
Joan: Well, we know we have at least one listener, so that's a good thing.
David: Thank you, Mike. So what's on your wish list for future enhancements with the Climate Center? What would you like to see improved or enhanced?
Solving issues of equity through climate resiliency
Michael: That's a great question. For the Climate Center, I think one of the things I'm increasingly aware of—and to remind you, I'm a quarter into this job, I'm still counting in months, so there's way more that I still need to learn—is that because climate is such a multifaceted challenge, it really requires connecting dots across organizations. And I came into this role really thinking about how we’re going to help organizations wrap their heads around what needs to be done and how we might help them? But what I'm also realizing is that there's a lot of work to be done internally, because ICF is really good at what it does. And sometimes that means it's at the opportunity cost of being aware of what everyone else is doing. So I think there's some benefit we can provide within ICF, just to help folks be aware of each other's work as it relates to climate.
One of the things I’m excited about is that ICF recently brought aboard John Auerbach, who's our public health lead. He and I have similar roles in terms of our respective areas, but as we've gotten to talking, we very quickly realized: climate relates to public health, and public health relates to climate. These are connections we need to explore further and connect the dots between the organizations he works with within ICF and the people I work with within ICF, because those folks don't necessarily talk to each other because their clients are different. They go to different conferences, they're reading different books, listening to different things. Our job is as much internal as it is external. And I would guess that folks working in the climate space probably underestimate how much internal process change should be part of the mission they're undertaking.
David: That's a really interesting observation—and accurate. I completely agree with that.
Michael: I mean, it's not the glitziest part of the job, but I think it's, in many ways, like the duck that glides across the surface of the pond but is paddling furiously beneath the water.
Joan: So David asked you about wishes, but just to switch tracks just a bit, this is a question we like to ask all of our guests, Mike. If you could do one thing to change the industry, no limits, what would you do?
Michael: No limits?
Joan: No limits, but just one thing.
Michael: My first instinct, Joan, is to wave a magic wand and to make everything easy, to make energy practically free, carbon-free, on-demand, anytime, anywhere. We don't have to worry about energy anymore. And if we don't have to worry about energy anymore, then climate becomes a much more solvable problem. We'll have so much energy, we can extract carbon from the atmosphere without having to blink an eye. And that would be the temptation if I had to rub the genie lamp and get a wish. But the other part of me thinks that climate is such a challenge, and it's such an awful situation we've gotten ourselves into as a society.
At the same time, I really believe with all my heart that this moment gives us opportunities to address so many other challenges we can solve in one fell swoop, or together: equity, environmental justice, social justice. There's a lot of inequality in our world, and I believe that if we can figure out ways to address climate change in ways that also address equity, inequality, and social justice, we’ll have done so much more good than we would be able to accomplish if I just waved that magic wand and made energy easy. So I'm tempted, but I don't want to give into that temptation.
Joan: That's really good.
David: Yeah, and it's so true how all of that intertwines around climate, right?
David: You can impact all of those issues while trying to also address climate-related needs.
Michael: It's a huge opportunity. And it's really on us to get it right. We got ourselves into this mess, both on the climate front and also on the equity front. And it's incumbent on us to figure out how to unwind this. I think we can genuinely end up in a better place. It's the opportunity of a lifetime. I think it was President Obama who said, "Ours is the first generation to really feel the impacts of climate change and maybe the last generation to be in a position to do something really big about it." And that's a huge responsibility, but it also means that we have the opportunity to right so many wrongs along the way. I'd be awfully proud if I could play some small part in that.
Joan: I think you already are.
David: You definitely are. Well, I have another question. Again, it's a silly question, because our listeners are not uneducated around this topic per se, but if you were to give guidance to somebody on how they personally could make an impact, what would you say?
Everyone can contribute to climate resilience
Michael: Oh, that's a great one. I talk with so many people who ask, “How do I get involved?” Maybe that's one way to think about this. What I like to tell people is that the best advice I ever got was to raise your hand to do the work. And every sort of committee or task force or team that you'll get to be a part of early in your career or late in your career, there's going to be that moment where someone is going to say, "Okay, who's going to write the first draft?" And everyone looks at each other. No one wants to volunteer for that.
The advice of my professor in graduate school, John Holdren, who later became a presidential science advisor in the Obama Administration, was, “Raise your hand, write the draft. You'll get the opportunity to do the thinking. You certainly will have the responsibility of doing the work.” The way he put it was, “They're not going to pay you enough for the value of what you're going to provide, but at the same time, you're not going to be qualified enough to do the work that you're going to be responsible for, so it's a fair trade.” But get involved. Do the work, raise your hand, write the draft, and just throw yourself in. You'll learn quickly, because climate change is one of these areas where we're all learning. No one's got this figured out. So, if we're all learning, you're no further behind than anyone else, and you've definitely got an opportunity to contribute. Work in a government agency, work in a utility, work in a nonprofit organization. Know that where you start isn't necessarily where you're going to end up. As long as you're learning, you're going to be in a position to contribute.
David: Love it.
Joan: It's great advice.
David: Thank you. Any last questions from you, Joan?
Joan: No, I think we've hit the time limit here. But this has just been a great discussion, and, as always, I wish we could talk longer. Thank you so much.
David: Really appreciate this, Mike.
Michael: My goal is to get back on the podcast one of these days here soon. And hopefully, we'll have some good news to share. Thank you for sparking these conversations and keeping the dialogue going. I hope I did my small part in helping your listeners learn a thing or two and whet their appetite for coming back for more.
Joan: You did—and you contributed to the optimism that continues to be a theme as we talk to everybody. If you look back and listen to every episode, there's always a note of optimism, which just has given me a lot of good feelings and makes me so proud to know all these wonderful people out there are doing this kind of work.
David: If you want to learn more about ICF’s Climate Center, you can visit icf.com/climate. We'll provide a link to it on our podcast page, and you can also reach out directly to Mike. He’s open to conversations. And if you've enjoyed this conversation, we sure appreciate you liking, sharing, and even subscribing to our podcast.
Joan: You might want to also listen to our next episode, which is going to be very interesting. We're going to be talking about striving towards equity across all programs with our colleague, Karen Ehrhardt-Martinez, and our guest, Jeff Brown of PSO. So have a great day, and we'll catch you on our next Energy in 30.